copper or purple beech, a tree worth waiting for

ALL TREES TEACH US PATIENCE, but a beech tree is the advanced master of the discipline.  Fagus grandifolia, the American beech, grows in the woods around me, but when I came to this place 30ish years ago, I added a European beech (Fagus sylvatica), a copper-leaf one specifically, in the field high above the house. Slow as it may be, it has proven a fine companion in every season since, with an increasingly muscular trunk of elephant-hide bark, and oh, those leaves—great from first hint of unfurling to their moment on the ground, a puddle of delicious cinnamon.

In an instant-gratification world, I have come to really appreciate things you can’t have right now, and a grown-up beech tree—I’m partway there; its head is getting wider, its trunk more massive, its branches starting to reach downward—is worth the wait.

And in the last few years there has been a bonus: a heavy crop of beech nuts. When the first one came, littering the ground throughout the canopy and beyond, delighting the squirrels, I wondered why, “suddenly,” it was so productive, and then I read: a European beech, various sources report must be at least 30 years old to start producing a full crop of beechnuts. So my tree is right on schedule.

I say “I added” the tree, but that’s not quite true. Even at maybe 5 feet tall, burlap-covered rootball included, the young beech was far too heavy for me to haul uphill myself. Two neighbors helped, and I encircled its trunk with a tube of hardware cloth when we were done, and watered it well, and imagined it a giant someday. The great public gardens I’d grown up visiting near New York City all had giant old European beeches, the fancy of the men who’d made the grand estates that some of the properties originally were. I was envious.

I love the copper- or purple-leaf ones best, the ones in the group simply called called Purpurea, because their leaves begin orangey-copper (above, and below at crabapple time), then hold a deep plum-wine color all summer long before going fiery again in their last gasps.

Among the green-leaved versions, one of the real beauties is Fagus sylvatica ‘Asplenifolia,’ with fern-like, fine-textured foliage, and to be clear: A plain old European beech is nothing plain at all. The straight species is a fantastic tree, as is the American (though the native is harder to find in nurseries). Both have beautiful, pointed buds, and both make wildlife happy with their beechnuts. Each is a giant of maybe 50 feet tall (eventually possibly larger) and nearly as wide; do not fail to give them room, because in time they will gobble it up.

The European beech is hardy in Zones 4 or 5 to 7—no heat-lover this one—and the American species in 4-9 (sun or shade). The native is an astonishing tree in every month, with its silvery trunk, but never more so than in fall, when it is golden-brown and yellow. In winter it holds some of the faded ones.

All those years ago I–we–set my beech on axis from the south-facing windows of the house, not knowing consciously that decades later I’d sit facing it daily, writing, looking up from the screen or page perhaps a hundred times a day. So much of what we do unconsciously when we garden turns out to be the best of all our choices–don’t think too much, but try to let instinct seize your hand. And so many plants that ask a little extra of us turn out to be the most precious of all.

  1. Ginny says:

    When we bought a piece of old hay field next to our house it was a chance to have sun for a vegetable garden with land leftover for other plants. I was permitted to buy three trees. One that I wanted was a copper beech, another was a sugar maple and then a linden (for our bees). Finding a copper beech tree was difficult but I did want to make a statement about instant gratification! Mine is not as big as yours and I can’t see it from the house. I planted it with the thought of placing it way from any potential building site since the land is in a small development. I like the idea of planting trees and gardens on old farmland instead of big houses.

  2. narf7 says:

    I am SO with you on this one. We inherited 4 acres out in the sticks and as avid tree collectors we have some real beauties in pots that are getting planted out. Steve collected all kinds of beeches and has bonsaied some because they will never be able to grow to their full height. Trees are the true backbone of a landscape and people completely forget their importance in design. Every single magnificent and enduring estate garden contains trees of varying heights and aside from giving back so much more than they take, trees, like the magnificent copper beech, are steadfast reminders of the power, the resiliance and the endurance of nature :)

  3. balsamfir says:

    When I was a very young child, my mother planted one in memory of a deceased relative. She put it in the middle of their lawn. Now it covers the lawn, and is magnificent, a tree people brake to look at as they drive by. Hers branches much lower to the ground, and is probably 50 x 50 feet. Did you limb yours up at some point?

  4. Judi Cabanaw says:

    This year I planted a tri colored beech…pink green and white. Like you I planted it with in view of my sunroom so I can sit and look at it, when I am in there reading or sewing.

  5. Martha Pendleton says:

    We first came across the copper beech in a beautiful garden in Ireland (Coole Park), between Limerick and Galway. We loved that garden and visited it often and the copper beech was our favorite tree in the garden. It’s bark had the initials of famous poets and artists of the time (William Butler Yeats, etc.) which were fun to see. There was a bench beneath the tree and our family, with our two young children (4 and 8) surprised a badger who came ambling up the walk. He got quite close to us, before he realized that we were a threat. It was a magical moment under a magical tree.

  6. Marion Kukula says:

    In our garden in England we had three small Beeches in a group our in the back that were visible from the house. Their branches swept gracefully down as if in a ballet and all retained some of their golden leaves through the Winter. I called them my Three Graces. Now, while driving round, i always look for the golden leaves of Beeches in the bare woods.

  7. Susan says:

    Someone I admired very much, born with a disease that he knew would lead to his early death, planted a copper beach on his property just a few years before he died. This to me was evidence of his beautiful soul — knowing full well that he would not see this tree grow for very many years, he nonetheless generously gave it to the rest of us. I see him now in every beech tree I walk or drive by.

  8. sarah from ohio says:

    Margaret — I just bought a house in a small southern Ohio town. Today, for the first time, I walked in the acres of undisturbed woods that touch my property. —Undisturbed except for a stone bench from which I marveled at a beautiful beech surrounded by maples. Then, I came home and read your lovely essay. Thank you.

  9. Ursula says:

    Beech trees, beech nuts, oh what memories they bring back! During the war in Europe, when food, especially oil was very difficult to get, my parents took us to a nearby forest to collect beech nuts. Since they are so very small, but very prolific,
    we spent whole afternoons collecting them. They then went to a farmer who was able to press them into precious cooking oil for us. At night I would close my eyes and see nothing but beech nuts, and I can still close my eyes today and bring up that picture.

  10. Lorie says:

    Not a beech, but a Prairie Fire crab, is my “we” tree. It was a replacement and touted as the best crab for the area..no heat lover either. And I also never dreamed, back then, that it would be the perfect size, in the perfect spot, on the other side of the computer screen…or that it would offer so much beauty in every season. The birds love it, though not the fruit, so the “apples” stay on most of the winter. When it snows, and the cardinals sit among the fruit, anticipating a trip to the feeders, it just makes my heart sing.

  11. John says:

    Hi Margaret, you strike a resonant chord with your admiration of the copper beech. We just lost one of our favorite trees on the property, a lovely old sugar maple. Perhaps in honor of that loss we should commit to a copper beech. Nature has provided a number of american beech at the bottom of our hill. They are, as you say, a great four season tree. My only real dilemma is preventing the deer from using any new baby tree as a rutting post…

  12. debbie decker says:

    In 1988 I took my 3 and 5 year olds to a Cooper Beech 100 year old birthday party. It was held at the Fordhook Farm owned by Burpee. The caretaker was a friend and she had the kids hold hands around the tree’s girth and sing “Happy Birthday!”. We had cake,ice cream, etc. My kids are grown now but they still remember that day,my son took a trip to see if the tree was still there. It is!!

  13. I love the story of your beech and I am so glad it is in the perfect position for you to enjoy daily. 3 years ago I lost a favorite maple tree just out my back door turning my lovely large shade garden into of very sunny spot. We have since turned that sunny spot into a new garden room with flagstone patio and many sun-loving plants. I love my new space but I still miss my beautiful, shady maple ALOT.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Teresa. I lost a few trees last year (and lots of shrubs). And I agree: even when the “opportunity” allowed something new that looks nice, I miss them. Hard to forget old friends. :)

  14. patty says:

    I’m very lucky to live on a street that was once a driveway to an estate, the street is lined with 10 european beeches. They are a wonder to look at every day, and kids can’t resist climbing them.

  15. Luke says:

    I am glad you mentioned the American beech! I miss those from my days in Western NY. Not too many in the Midwest, although there are some nice ones at the J. Sterling Morton’s estate (Arbor Day Foundation) in Nebraska that I recently photographed. Nothing like golden yellow foliage and silver bark!

  16. Bob Hastings says:

    Some inveterate gardeners, like me, end up being quite solitary souls. We can become totally absorbed in the daily joys and challenges of creating our own little corner on the world — an escape of sorts, no doubt. So it is very reassuring, and touching, to read someone else’s personal notes and feelings that seem so eerily similar to my own … sort of a soul mate that you have never met. When I was a child, my father had a neighbor graft a copper beech and a weeping beech onto native stock on our new farm. My love for trees was born, and has grown with those trees (and many more) for over 60 years. The copper beech is now over 60’ tall and almost as wide, and it is spectacular every day of the year. The lower branch junctions with the trunk now look like the wrinkled folds of an elephant’s shoulders. The weeping beech still hangs on, despite an incompatible graph that requires me to keep it sharply pruned back to only 12’ – but it was my Dad’s. When he died, I planted a weeping copper beech to combine the best in his honor. Thirty years later, it is really coming into its glory, and helps provide a tangible connection to him. I also planted a fern-leaf (Asplenifolia) that grows much more slowly, but now exceeds 30’ with amazing symmetry, vivid green in Spring, the softness of a cut-leaf maple in Summer, vibrant yellow in Fall, and beautiful bark and form in Winter. Even the mulch of its own delicate leaves is beautiful.
    As you say: give the beeches plenty of room to spread without competition. If need be, make the tough choice early to cut down less worthy competitors. You are planting a tree that has the potential to continue growing for hundreds of years. Some of the long entrance lanes of the stately homes in England are remarkable for the enormous symmetrical trees that are just beginning to touch 200-400 years after the carefully considered placement of an altruistic soul who would never see their full glory.
    I admit to being addicted to my garden, a weedaholic, and a borderline hermit, but your blog reassures me that I am not totally crazy – or at least not alone in my plight :)

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Bob, from whom I was apparently separated at birth. :) I guess I needn’t waste a single word in trying to bring you into the fold. Thank you for sharing your own tender story, and I hope to see you soon again.

  17. Liz Needle says:

    Love your copper beech. I have one in my garden – about 30 years old now, but has suffered somewhat through overcrowding – over enthusiasm and lack of experience on my part. But it gives me pleasure the whole year around. Always changing and always beautiful.

    1. margaret says:

      Nice to hear about it, Liz, and hope to see you here again soon. In some areas I have had to cut out things to make room for others…always hard!

  18. Mary Briggs says:

    I have a ” love affair ” with trees , they never disappoint , anytime of the year ! I planted my second Fagus this spring – the deer got the first , second one is hopefully well protected with a monster of a fence , I hope !?!? If you travel on Rt 44 East into CT , between Lakeville and Salisbury , on the L is a BEAUTIFUL Beech tree , worth a trip to see , plus that area has a lot of shops etc. to offer .

  19. Jed Feffer says:

    Are there specific clultivars of the European Beech that have the coppery colored leaves versus the purple colored ones? I read about a “golden beech” Fagus Sylvatica Zlatia. Could this be one? I especially like the copper tone of the leaves in your photos. We have a house in northeastern Vermont that has a large yard that I would like to plant a beech in. Any information you can provide would be most helpful. Jed Feffer

  20. Will says:

    Awesome trees! One little correction; American Beech is Fagus grandiFOLIA not grandiFLORA. I’m sure it was a slip of the finger but didn’t want anyone to mistakenly quote it later. Thanks for the write-up.

    1. margaret says:

      Hilarious, Will, and thank you. I could have re-read that 500 times and never noticed the error I had made!

  21. e watson says:

    i hate to differ, but i think most of the colored leaves, ie copper beech and the burgundy maples etc, always stick out in a sort of way that says no to nature and yes to man’s tinkering with it–same for the grafted weeping trees–something so unnatural and unneighborly.

    glad you and those above love them though–more colors in the box, right?

  22. I have a copper beech in the back yard, just off the patio. For many years now it has provided shade on the patio and afforded the premier spot for a shade garden between the rose garden and patio. After hiring arborists for years to feed, prune and pamper this magnificent specimen I find it has been sentenced to a slow demise. One highly recommend ‘arborist’ almost clear cut the northwest side over the patio while pruning, contractors, replacing the patio, damaged the root system on the same side. I have continued the deep root feedings and sprayings however sunscald and borers have taken hold. Please tell your readers to beware of well recommended, certified, arborist (even those with large national firms that shall remain unnamed unless you look for a pear.)
    I am torn between removing and redesigning the lawn or attempting to replace the copper beech which was in it’s prime.

  23. Janet Herman says:

    Hi Margaret, So nice to see this site as my husband and I recently bought an old house along a country road which we want to move into next Summer. We are remodeling it right now, and beginning to plant trees, our first tree a Copper Beech, I knew nothing about them until now. It is 9ft tall with a trunk of about 4 inches and was recommended to us from a friend who owns a nursery. My problem is we can’t figure out where in the yard to plant it. The yard is very large and open for the most part until it reaches our crossing driveway to the barn, then the woods begin. I would appreciate any insight you can give.

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